Sermon: Sunday 6 September 2015
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Mark 7:24-end The Healing of the Syrophoenician Woman’s Daughter
Dogs under the table are a familiar reality in the Deanery. This weekend we had two children staying with us – then dogs under the table eating the crumbs was dramatically portrayed. In the account from Mark 7 which we have just heard, Jesus uses this riddle about dogs and crumbs and tables in a perplexing way. Prior to this he has interacted in Mark’s gospel with the Jewish religious leaders and has successfully redefined what it meant to be pure. It seems like the trajectory is for an ever more expansive understanding of God and a cutting through of norms which may have become oppressive.
But here Jesus seems to be returning to a belief that he is indeed first and foremost for his own people, the Jews. Maybe we hear echoes of the early church’s struggles to comprehend whether the good news was really meant for gentiles. Jesus seems to suggest that the children, the Jews should be fed first and he describes the woman as a dog, in fact in way which seems even more patronising to our modern ears, a little dog, a puppy!
There has been endless speculation about this phrase and given the setting, I can’t help but wonder if it is in some way connected to one of the great schools of philosophy which came to be known in English as ‘the Cynics’. These were ascetics who shunned convention. Their most famous exemplar was Diogenes of Sinope who lived in a barrel on the streets of Athens. They were known in Greek as kynikos (dog like). Diogenes famously said ‘other dogs bite their enemies; I bite my friends to save them’. Jesus words to the woman may uncomfortably for us been a straight forward put down or it may have been picking up that cultural reference – here is someone who like the Cynics is uncomfortably calling into question what really lies under the table, because what sits under the table then has a big impact as to what goes on in the room at large. There is an encounter here between Jesus and issues which are close at hand, known yet hidden.
The woman is persistent in the way we would expect to see today in any mother desperate for the welfare of her child and burdened by the social stigma being associated with things demonic. As today the illness has enormous social consequence for the child and the whole family. But the persistence is even more remarkable given that the address to an authoritative first century man would have more usually been expected to come from another man. The tenacity and persistence of this person leads Jesus to assert that the child is to be made well even though he never even sees her. Mark tells us nothing more about this and indeed like the story which follows of the healing of the man with the speech impediment, there is no sense that necessarily they become avid followers in the way, signed up baptised Christians. Instead, the point is that the mission of Jesus is extending and with each new extension, it is demonstrated in plain sight.
This extension is especially symbolised by geography. At the end of this section he will go deeper into Gentile territory. The inescapable power of the gift of this story to us today is that it is set in region of Tyre and that this is a Syrophoenician mother. Tyre today is known as Sour and it is north of the modern Israelis border. Now it is a Lebanese city. As many as 250,000 Palestinian refugees live around Sour today and some day years ago it was in our news headlines. Additionally in Lebanon today there are over 1,100,000 Syria refugees.
In Jesus’ time, the city of tyre was in Syria and this woman is by birth a Phoenician from the borders of Syria and Lebanon. The Phoenicians were famous for their purple dye derived from a sea snail and you’ll remember another woman in the Acts of the Apostles (16:14) called Lydia who came from Thyatira in modern day Turkey who became a leader of the church. There is no Christianity without the Middle East!
This is a Syrian mother, demonised and living as a gentile, a foreigner in Jewish territory. She is seen even by Jesus as not a child but a little dog. Yet she knows that healing and restoration were possible. Jesus might well be the authoritative presence who could unlock a future and offer healing which would mean the child would not only be free of illness but that she and her family could properly take their place afresh in society.
Whilst I would be the first to tell you that you can’t simply and naively read of from the pages of the bible answers for modern complex problems. Equally, of all the gospels that we could possibly hear in church at a time such as this, it must be this one.
This photograph of Aylan al-Kurdi has managed to cut through our seasoned carapace to the human stories which sit behind global geo-politics. We then learnt that his brother Ghalib, his mother Rihan and 3 other children and 6 other adults drowned from that one desperate boat. Our first reading from the later part of the book of Isaiah we hear ‘for the sake of my servant Jacob and Israel my chosen I call you by your name’. Israel had been sacked by the Babylonians and they had been carried away and now a remnant of returnees was rebuilding cities with destroyed temples and ancient sites. The first thing God offers them is to call them by their name.
We now inherit this tradition. We now are given authority by Jesus Christ to address demons and demonization. We are to call people by their name not by some amorphous label.
We can’t sort it all, we don’t have never ending resources. When the next group of people inheriting the lands of the Syrophoenicians come here, we are called to be those who ensure that they can become healed of terrible memories and experiences and reintegrated into life. We are called to persistently ask God for the resources we need and not just put up with the detritus under the table that hampers our action whether that is fear, or racism or sexism or politics. We will soon fly the banner #refugees welcome. If we can welcome all our visitors and tourists, how much more can we do it for those like little Aylan’s family?
© The Very Revd David Monteith